Few political phrases have outlived their usefulness faster than “establishment,” a moniker that’s still applied to the kind of moderate insiders who once ruled Washington despite the fact that populism has infiltrated every major American institution. It’s laughable to suggest that someone like Mitt Romney — sitting alone in the Senate cafeteria hoping a lost passerby might stop and listen to his Burkean ideas over a glass of milk— is somehow still an “establishment Republican,” while a former president running for a second term whose allies control the entire GOP apparatus remains an “outsider.” But that’s the terminology used in emails soliciting donations to pay Donald Trump’s legal bills, so the rest of us are apparently stuck with it.
“War Game,” the new documentary from nonfiction heavy-hitters Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber, is a portrait of the “establishment” in exile. The film follows a recognizable group of national security experts — ranging from former senators and presidential also-rans to Trump whistleblowers who found second careers as CNN pundits — whose concern about America’s preparedness for another January 6th prompts them to stage an elaborate war game simulating a more serious insurrection. The role players came from both major parties and served in a combined five presidential administrations, but they all embody the civility, intellectualism, prudence, and patriotism that was once a prerequisite to reach the heights of American power.
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Picture what would happen if Aaron Sorkin took a job as an escape room designer, and you’ll have a decent picture of the game being played. Former Montana Governor Steve Bullock pretends to be president, while his faux cabinet (including the likes of former senators Heidi Heitkamp and Doug Jones and a slew of retired military leaders) ushers him through a series of tumultuous scripted events in a mock Situation Room. On the day that congress is expected to certify a highly contested 2024 election, his narrowly defeated opponent instructs his cult-like supporters to storm state capitols around the nation in an attempt to seize power by force.
The stakes are significantly higher than the last American insurrection, as this one has the support of a large portion of the U.S. military. As the would-be president fends off a coup, the advisers are forced to weigh their most severe legal options as they attempt to secure a peaceful transfer of power without sacrificing the country’s founding principles. To win, they must create safe enough conditions for congress to reconvene and certify the election before a timer runs out.
The exercise, which was designed as a stress test for America’s checks and balances and submitted as an independent report to the Pentagon, was certainly worth doing. But it’s hard to look past the ridiculousness of watching it as a movie. Moss and Gerber’s film would have benefitted from a Brechtian approach that emphasized the fakeness of the game while focusing on the process of assembling such an elaborate thought exercise. But too much of the film takes the opposite approach, combining crisply composed shots and tense editing to present something that resembles a real political thriller.
The choice traps the film in its own form of artistic purgatory, as we’re left watching something that is neither real nor fictional. It’s abundantly clear that the unfolding scenario isn’t actually happening, yet the people acting it out aren’t trained performers who could illicit any emotional investment. It’s hard to imagine anyone genuinely wondering if Steve Bullock’s presidential LARP session is going to end with him failing to save the day and restore “West Wing” values, but that appears to be what the film is going for.
For those of us who long for a day when bookish moderates with deep principles had an iron grip on America’s nuclear codes, watching “War Room” is often a sad experience. On a personal level, I would be much happier living in a world where Bullock and Heitkamp made all of our national security decisions without fear that the MyPillow guy could usurp them if a few hundred Pennsylvania voters stayed home. But the film’s pompous self-importance left me with the sinking feeling that those very voters might be even harder to reach the next time around. Unless someone can invent a time machine and ensure that social media, small dollar fundraising, and open primaries never get invented, it’s hard to see a future where real life plays out as calmly as it does in the film.
“War Room” makes a skillful argument for why competent experts should be put in charge of things, but its fatal flaw is the way it illustrates why they so rarely are these days. There’s a certain breed of political junkie who will be profoundly moved by the film, but that person already follows all of its “cast” members on Threads and has purchased 60 percent of their memoirs. Every scene simply preaches to the converted. Watching these former leaders act out what they would do if they returned to power, it’s fair to wonder if their time would have been better spent figuring out how to get there.
“War Game” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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